Arsenal saw their fringe players shine as they secured a comfortable Europa League victory over Dundalk at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday evening.
With the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Thomas Partey left on the bench, Mikel Arteta’s much-changed side ran out 3-0 victors over their Irish opposition.
Eddie Nketiah opened the scoring with a close-range effort before man of the match Joe Willock doubled the lead just 125 seconds later. Nicolas Pepe wrapped up the win with a fine strike just seconds after the interval.
With a Premier League trip to Manchester United on Sunday, Arteta made 11 alterations from the weekend loss to Leicester, but his team here were still far too strong for the Irish champions.
Dundalk boss Filippo Giovagnoli had likened the tie to a heavyweight boxer taking on a super-lightweight – but his players kept themselves off the ropes in the opening exchanges.
Alex Runarsson, making his debut in the Arsenal goal, was called into action early on as he dived low to turn a long-range Patrick McEleney effort behind.
Arsenal were struggling to make their mark on the game despite boasting a side which cost almost £150million against one made up of free transfers.
Arteta opted to play Granit Xhaka in a back three, with his defensive options severely limited through injury and unavailability.
Dundalk’s experienced goalkeeper Gary Rogers was not called into meaningful action until after the half-hour as he tipped a Sead Kolasinac header over the crossbar following smart work from Willock.
Nketiah should have done better when a deflected Pepe shot fell to his feet just seven yards out, but he could only steer the ball wide.
But England’s record goalscorer at Under-21 level would make no mistake soon after as Rogers came to punch a corner and got nowhere near the ball, which ricocheted off a defender and down to Nketiah, who tucked away his chance.
The lead was doubled moments later as Dundalk again played a part in their downfall, Nketiah gifted possession before picking out Pepe, whose shot was blocked into the feet of Willock, who finished well.
Arsenal needed less than a minute of the second half to move further clear, Pepe finishing superbly from the edge of the box.
The rest of the evening was fairly straightforward for the hosts, with Arteta able to wrap Pepe, Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi in cotton wool for the game at Manchester United in three days’ time.
He also handed a debut to highly-rated young striker Folarin Balogun, while Dani Ceballos and Willian were introduced to increase their respective fitness levels.
The win maintains Arsenal’s perfect start to Group B after the 2-1 victory at Rapid Vienna last week, with Molde travelling to north London next week.
Before then, Arteta will be hoping to give Arsenal’s domestic campaign a shot in the arm following back-to-back defeats and will no doubt recall his big-hitters in an attempt to leave Old Trafford with three points.
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